Poll: Many Americans know someone who has abused prescription painkillers and suffered major harmful effects


For immediate release: Monday, May 18, 2015

Boston, MA – A new national poll by The Boston Globe and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that in an era when concern about drug abuse has been very high, more U.S. adults are concerned about prescription painkiller abuse than about heroin.

While more than half (51%) of Americans believe that the abuse of strong prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet, is an extremely or very serious problem in their state, 45% say the same of heroin. Nearly four in ten (39%) believe that the problem of prescription painkiller abuse has gotten worse over the last five years, while an almost equal proportion (38%) believe the problem has stayed about the same.

A live webcast with key government decision makers and the lead pollster was broadcast on Monday, May 18 to discuss what the federal government and public health officials can do to mitigate the national problem of prescription painkiller abuse. The on-demand webcast will be available shortly here: https://theforum.sph.harvard.edu/events/opioid-painkiller-abuse.

Many Americans report knowing someone who has abused prescription painkillers

Nearly four in ten (39%) say they have known someone during the past five years who has abused prescription painkillers. Of those who have known someone who has had this problem, a majority say it has had a major harmful effect on the user’s family life (67%), work life (58%), and health (55%). In addition, 21% say that the person’s abuse of prescription painkillers led to their death.

“For much of the public, the issue of prescription painkiller abuse is not just a remote concern; it’s a problem they see in their personal lives,” said Robert J. Blendon, Richard L. Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Those who have known someone who has abused prescription painkillers hold different views about the problem than those who have not. They are significantly more likely to think abuse of prescription painkillers is an extremely or very serious problem in their state (64% vs. 43%) and that the problem has gotten worse over the past five years (56% vs. 28%). In addition, they are more likely to believe that prescription painkiller abuse makes a person more likely to use heroin or other illegal drugs (59% vs. 45%).

Americans’ views about the causes of prescription painkiller abuse

Americans see multiple causes of prescription painkiller abuse. More than half (55%) believe the ease of buying prescription painkillers illegally is a major cause of the problem in their state. Nearly half (45%) believe that the ease of getting prescription painkillers from people who have saved some from an old prescription or that doctors prescribing painkillers too often or in doses larger than necessary are also major causes.

“We know that the prescription drug and heroin epidemic requires a comprehensive response,” said Michael Botticelli, Director of National Drug Control Policy. “That’s why the Obama Administration’s 2011 Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Plan focused on provider education on pain and substance use disorders, prescription drug monitoring systems, safe drug disposal, and smart-on-crime enforcement. We are also working with Federal, State and local partners to increase access to effective treatment, while reducing overdoses and other consequences of this epidemic.”

Results of the poll indicate one discrepancy between public opinion and support for policy action. While 45% of U.S. adults say that painkillers being overprescribed is a major cause of painkiller abuse, less than three in ten (29%) believe that current state and federal regulations make prescription painkillers too easy for people to get.

Public opinion divided on what government action should be taken

No clear consensus emerges when it comes to expanding access to treatment for addiction to prescription painkillers or heroin. About half (48%) believe that their state government should require health insurers to provide more extensive coverage for treatment programs for people addicted to prescription painkillers or heroin, even if it adds to the cost of premiums for insured people. But an almost equal proportion (46%) oppose expanding treatment coverage by insurers beyond current requirements. When asked whether they believe there is a long-lasting, effective treatment for prescription painkiller addiction, 45% of U.S. adults believe there is such a treatment, while the rest are split between saying that they don’t know (27%) and not believing that there is such a treatment (28%).

Information on FDA-approved treatments which can successfully treat opioid use disorders is available here.

Some states permit adults to buy a medicine called naloxone or Narcan, which reverses the effect of a prescription painkiller or heroin overdose in progress, from retail pharmacies. Other states restrict adults’ ability to buy the drug because they think it might encourage use of illegal drugs. Americans are divided on whether or not adults should be allowed to buy naloxone at retail pharmacies, with 42% in favor and 47% opposed.

View the complete poll findings and accompanying charts.

Read a Boston Globe article featuring the poll.


The nationwide polling results reported here come from one of two parallel polls, conducted by The Boston Globe and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, one in the U.S. as a whole, the other in Massachusetts. Representatives of the two organizations worked closely to develop the survey questionnaire and analyze the results of the poll. The Boston Globe and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health paid for the survey and related expenses.

The project team was led by Robert J. Blendon, Richard L. Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Gideon Gil, Health and Science Editor of The Boston Globe. The Harvard research team also included John M. Benson, Research Scientist, Justin M. Sayde, Administrative and Research Manager, and Caitlin L. McMurtry, Research Assistant.

For the U.S. poll, interviews were conducted with a nationally representative sample of 1,033 randomly selected adults, ages 18 and older, via telephone (including cell phones and landlines) by SSRS of Media, Pennsylvania. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The interviewing period was April 15-19, 2015. The data were weighted to reflect the demographics of the national adult population as described by the U.S. Census.

When interpreting these findings, one should recognize that all surveys are subject to sampling error. Results may differ from what would be obtained if the whole U.S. adult population had been interviewed. The sampling error for total U.S. respondents is ±3.6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. For those who have known someone during the past five years who has abused prescription painkillers, the margin of error is ±5.7 percentage points.

Possible sources of non-sampling error include non-response bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Non-response in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases and for variations in probability of selection within and across households, sample data are weighted by household size, cell phone/landline use and demographics (sex, age, race/ethnicity, education, and region) to reflect the true population. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing, replicate subsamples, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.

For more information:

Todd Datz

photo: iStockphoto.com


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health.